Footballs are in the air again on the Arizona State campus. Spring practice started yesterday.
But there is something else in the air at this year’s annual pigskin ritual. Let’s call it optimism.
“This spring feels quite a bit different,” ASU head coach, Dennis Erickson, told the media earlier this month. “What’s exciting to me, finally, is that, after four years, we’re worthy.
“I thought last year we were really close, now I feel like we’re here. Now we’ve got to do it on the field.”
The Sun Devils finished a disappointing 6-6 last season, but played toe-to-toe with just about every team on their schedule, including three that were ranked nationally in the top 10. They built momentum toward the end as they won three of their last five games and capped it off with a huge boost in confidence by beating an Arizona Wildcat team that had been ranked in the top 20 earlier in the year.
This is Erickson’s fifth year at the helm of a program that was in need of rebuilding. He went 10-3 his first year, won a share of the Pac-10 crown, and was named the conference Coach of the Year.
But the next two seasons ended with losing records and last year was just a break-even result. The school’s AD, Lisa Love, gave the embattled coach a vote of confidence when his 2010 team was just 4-6 and appeared on its way to a third straight losing performance. She announced that the ol’ ball coach would return in 2011.
He dug himself out of that hole, but 2011 is a make-or-break proposition for the coach who won two national titles at Miami.
“If we win eight or seven games, is it the end of the world? Not really. But I believe this team is capable of winning some games and having an opportunity to compete for the (conference) championship, and that’s what we want to do.
“For me, I think it’s a very important season for this program, no question about it.”
Ok, he gets it. No question about it.
Others seem to be getting it, too. The Sun Devils have been ranked in at least one pre-season poll as a top 20 team. And there are plenty out there expecting ASU to contend to become the first conference champion of the new Pac-12.
The quarterback who was expected to take them to that promised land, Steven Threet, will not be under center in 2011. Following a series of concussions, the transfer from Michigan decided to ‘retire’ before his senior year.
But his replacement for the last two games of the season, Brock Osweiler, gives the veteran coach hope anew. Osweiler, who will be a junior next year, threw for 380 yards and four touchdowns to beat UCLA, 55-34, and then led the Devils to a 30-29 overtime victory in Tucson.
Actually, QB is one of the positions that give Erickson some comfort going forward.
He calls the group of quarterbacks he has now “the best I’ve ever been around… I’ve never had it that deep.” He acknowledges that three of them haven’t been battle-tested yet, but he likes the level of talent that is there.
The back-ups include redshirt freshman, Taylor Kelly, and a couple of true freshmen, Michael Bercovici and Michael Eurbank. Eubank and Bercovici were both top-10 ranked prospects.
Erickson likes to talk about all the youth that has to be developed, which is generally what spring practice is all about. But he will also have 10 returning starters on offense and nine on defense.
He will have a couple of ground-gainers to go with an improved Osweiler. Cameron Marshall, who will be a senior, picked up a couple of 100-yard rushing games last season, while Deantre Lewis will move into his junior year after posting three straight 100-yard receiving performances in 2010.
And Omar Bolden and Vontaze Burfick will be back to anchor the defensive secondary. Bolden decided to return at cornerback for his senior year, despite being projected as a third- or fourth-round NFL draft pick. Burfick led the linebacking corps, accounting for a team-high 90 tackles, including 54 solos.
The ASU defense last year was considered one of the best in conference, and perhaps the nation. In the fall, they should have an improved offense to go with it.
“One thing we can do right now is line up and run the football without having to trick people,” said Erickson, as he expressed his confidence in the run game.
“Shoot, we got a whole lot of offense. Let’s just be good at what we do. Let’s get the ball to our guys who can run fast and let them make plays.”
Seems pretty simple, huh?
Welcome to spring ball, when temperatures are still down… and hopes are still high.
(Photo: ASU Athletics)